Happy Birthday to Dr. Mary Walker

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, the only female recipient of the Medal of Honor, was born on November 26, 1832, in Oswego, New York.

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker was born in the town of Oswego in 1832. She served as a surgeon in the Civil War before being captured crossing enemy lines to treat wounded civilians. She was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for her valor; the only woman in history to receive the distinction. She devoted her life to social causes, becoming a prominent writer and lecturer and advocating for the abolition of slavery as well as promoting women's suffrage and dress reform. Image courtesy of the Matthew Brady Collection of Civil War Photographs in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.(National Archives)

She grew up believing in abolition and women’s rights. During a time when most medical schools refused to admit women, Mary Walker found one that did–the Syracuse Medical College–and graduated in 1855.

In 1861, not long after the start of the Civil War, Dr. Walker shuttered her private practice in Rome, New York, and traveled to Washington, D.C., where she requested a commission as an assistant surgeon in the U.S. Army. Denied because of her gender, Walker volunteered, working at hospitals in the capital city as well as in the field. In 1865, President Andrew Johnson awarded her the Medal of Honor for her services as a physician during the war.

Mary Walker was a controversial figure. Not only had she chosen a “man’s profession,” she also adopted reform dress. Commonly known as the Bloomer costume, Dr. Walker wore trousers under a shortened skirt. She was arrested several times for wearing “men’s clothing” in public yet she never gave up her bloomers. It was a woman’s right, she believed, to wear what she wanted and to do the kind of work she wanted.

A prolific writer and public speaker, Dr. Mary Walker campaigned for women’s voting rights after the Civil War. She died in 1919, the year before the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment.

The details of her extraordinary life can be found in my forthcoming book, Dr. Mary Walker’s Civil War, available for preorder now.

 

 

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